The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Uncle Sam Wants YOU (To Use Good Fonts)

Switching away from Times New Roman is like showering, shaving, and putting on a clean shirt. You instantly look better, and you feel better too. With fonts as with shirts, picking a look that works for you can be an intimidating choice, but it’s worth the effort. Here are a few of my thoughts on finding a good one. I’m going to focus on serif typefaces suitable for extended legal academic writing, since that’s the main design problem I’ve thought about, although that won’t stop me from mentioning a few other typefaces I’ve found useful. I’ll proceed in rough order of difficulty: from fonts you already have, to fonts you can easily get, to fonts you need to research before buying.

System Fonts

Operating systems and office suites come with some decent fonts. All of these have issues, but they’re still miles ahead of the defaults.

  • Palatino, Palatino Linotype, and Book Antiqua are basically the same typeface. It’s classical and generally unobtrusive.
  • Hoefler Text is a little too ebullient for my tastes, but it’s undeniably pretty and readable.
  • On the other hand, Cambria is bland bland bland, but again undeniably readable. It’s a much better default choice on Microsoft’s part.
  • “Garamond” isn’t really one. It’s based on the typefaces of Jean Jannon, who lived a century after Claude Garamond. Be warned that Jannon’s italic capitals have horribly inconsistent slopes. I mention this because of the law-review convention of putting the title of the article at the top of each page in all-caps italics: “A”s and “R”s in particular just look wrong.
  • Baskerville Old Style is junk, but the Baskerville that comes with Macs is perfectly usable. (It was my go-to typeface for years.)
  • Bell at its best looks like it came from a 19th-century book. At its worst, it looks like it came from a 19th-century advertising flyer.
  • Century Schoolbook is familiar from textbooks and Supreme Court opinions. If you use it, try to bump down the point size a bit, as it runs large.
  • Goudy Old Style has much to love about it, but be careful about setting extended passages in italics. Its flourishes can look a little dated.
  • Calisto is Times if it sucked in its gut and stood up straight. Better than nothing.


It used to be that most free fonts were awful. But we’re in something of a free font renaissance; there are some excellent ones out there.

  • Bitstream Charter was designed in 1987 as a font for displays that by today’s standards were absurdly crude and low-resolution. But it has held up well and was donated for free public use in 1992.
  • Cardo was created with the needs of classicists in mind, so it contains an absurdly large selection of diacritics for ancient languages. But it’s free and it’s elegant, so why not use it for modern purposes? My homepage, for example, is set in Cardo.
  • Goudy Bookletter 1911, Linden Hill, and Sorts Mill Goudy are free digital implementations of three ineffably American typefaces by Frederic Goudy (Kennerley, Deepdene, and Goudy Oldstyle, respectively). Of the three, Sorts Mill Goudy is the easiest to make work.
  • Minion isn’t quite free. But you get it automatically if you install Adobe’s free-to-download Acrobat Reader, which means it’s dead simple to get. It is outstandingly nondescript; I use it when I want an authoritative typeface that avoids calling attention to itself.
  • Open Sans is a fine workhorse sans serif: readable, friendly, and well executed.
  • Adobe Source Code is, quite simply, the best monospaced coding typeface I have ever seen. If you need to show computer code, or want a beautiful fixed-width font, this is the one.

Adobe Font Folio

For students and faculty, the awkwardly named Adobe Font Folio 11 Education Essentials Student and Teacher Edition is an unbeatable deal. For $149, you get 25 different typefaces including more than than 500 individual fonts. In particular, it contains typefaces that are outstanding drop-in replacements for more familiar ones:

  • Arno is a modern design based on Italian Renaissance principles: like Palatino but less overused.
  • Garamond Premier is like the “Garamond” that comes with Office, but better.
  • ITC New Baskerville is darker and more consistent than the versions that come with Macs and with Office. Utopia is a modern design with similar features.
  • Try using Adobe Caslon for memos instead of Times. They’ll instantly look better, but without looking like they’re trying to hard to look better.
  • If you’re ever tempted by Arial, take a deep breath and switch to Univers. It also works in place of Helvetica: same rationalist midcentury Swiss aesthetic, with a touch more personality.

All of these substitutions work effortlessly. Other typefaces in the AFF11EESTE require a little more work, but can be used to excellent effect. I have only good things to say about Avenir, Chaparral, Adobe Jenson, and Myriad.

À la Carte

If the above aren’t sufficient for your typesetting needs, you may need to seek professional help–that is, professional typefaces. Here are some that I’ve either used successfully, and some that daydream about. (I try to avoid buying fonts unless I have a specific project I need them for. I don’t always succeed.)

  • Equity was designed specifically for legal writing. To see it used well, check out the specimen or Joe Miller’s free patent law casebook. Whoops. Joe’s casebook used to use Equity, but now it uses Galliard.
  • My Internet Law casebook is set in Miller Text, which is essentially Georgia with all of the interesting and subtle details put back in. I’m serious: Matthew Carter designed Georgia for screens in 1993 and Miller for print in 1997. But digital displays have come far enough in the last two decades that all the lovely little details now work on screen as well.
  • I love Adobe Caslon, and it has an utterly impeccable pedigree (you may recognize it from the pages of New Yorker). But the definitive modern Caslon is probably Williams Caslon. Its designer, William Berkson, geeks out in glorious detail about crafting it here and here.
  • Similarly, the definitive modern Baskerville is probably František Štorm’s Baskerville Original. Here’s a specimen, albeit one that plays up the archaism. (Mrs. Eaves is a much looser version of the Baskerville model: not so suited for extended writing but astonishingly elegant and instantly recognizable.)
  • UCLA’s Samuel Bray uses Dante for his drafts. (See, e.g.) Duke’s Stephen Sachs uses ITC Galliard for his. (See, e.g.) Both are versatile, elegant text faces that perfectly suit the kinds of papers they write.
  • I’ve been using Bembo Book for my recent drafts. (See, e.g.) It can be tricky to get the sizing and spacing right. But when it works, it works; I think it makes for a calm, graceful, and authoritative page.
  • Quirkier but distinctive faces I’ve noticed include Stickley and the legendary “lostDoves Type.

Notes on Buying Fonts

If you are going to use a typeface for legal academic writing, you need two styles: a roman and a matching italic. That’s all. A bold and bold italic can be nice for contrast (in headings, perhaps), but you can get by perfectly well with just a roman and an italic. If you’re particularly obsessive and want to do small caps the right way, you should also get a matching small-caps style (not available for all fonts). Then, whenever you need small caps, rather than relying on your word processor’s broken small-caps command, just switch to the small-caps font.

I have had good experiences buying from MyFonts (good, wide selection) and The Font Bureau. Once you download a font, installing it is simple. Find the file and double-click to open. On both Macs and PCs, this will open up a font-manager dialog box; click the button to install. You may need to restart open applications to pick up the new fonts.

Fourth in an occasional series on typography and legal academic writing.